Movie Review: The Monuments Men (PG)

Men on a mission: (from far left) John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray attempt to save artworks in The Monuments Men.

Review: Comedy drama

119 minutes / Opens on 20 February, 2014 / Rating: 2.5/5

THE story: In the last days of World War II in 1944, Lieutenant Frank Stokes (George Clooney) puts together a unit of men for an unusual mission - to track down the priceless art and artefacts stolen by the Nazis and save them from destruction. The group of seven comprises curators and art historians, including James Granger (Matt Damon) and Richard Campbell (Bill Murray). Parisian curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) has to decide whether she will help them. Based on the non-fiction book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves And The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History by Robert M. Edsel.

What is worth more: A work of art or a man's life?

Trying to save paintings and sculptures at a time when war is raging and lives are being lost in battle could well seem foolhardy. So early on, Stokes frames the mission for the men and the audience. He points out that you can wipe out a generation of people and they will come back, but if you destroy their art, it will be as if they never existed.

But while the mission is noble, the reaction they get on the ground is often dismissive, if not outright hostile, and their resources are pitifully meagre.

There is promise here for an entertaining treasure hunt romp as a bunch of unlikely characters fights against the odds and tries to find out where the artworks have been squirrelled away. But the movie mostly meanders along and is a little too low-key in the hands of star and director Clooney.

Given that liberties have already been taken with the names of the characters, who are based loosely on actual people, why not push it further and go for a tighter and funnier story?

After all, quite a cast of comic actors has been assembled, from the ever-reliable John Goodman to the wonderfully dour Bob Balaban.

There is also Jean Dujardin from The Artist (2011) and Hugh Bonneville from British television's period drama Downton Abbey.

The other problem with the sprawling cast is that you do not get a good grasp of the characters and why they would put their lives on the line for a mission that may be worthy but is, nevertheless, undertaken in a time of war.

As the group splits up and encounters separate adventures, the film feels a little scattered. Goodman and Dujardin are pinned down by a sniper, Balaban and Murray share a smoke with a young soldier and Damon tries to persuade Blanchett that, unlike the Germans and the Russians, they want to return the art to their rightful owners.

Still, you root for them as they race against time to foil the Nazis' dastardly plan of destroying everything if Hitler died and also to thwart the Russians from rushing in to claim their spoils of victory.

By the movie's end, you would be astounded by the scale of German greed and the sheer audacity of the systematic looting.

And yes, the film does provide an answer to the primary query it poses regarding the value of art vis-a-vis human life. You might not agree, but what is less questionable is that the men, and women, of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme helped to safeguard a collective heritage that we can all enjoy today.

bchan@sph.com.sg


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